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New Republican Elections Chief Wants to End Mississippi’s Jim Crow ‘Electoral College’ Law

Michael Watson, Mississippi's incoming secretary of state, says he supports changing the state's Jim Crow-era election system. Photo courtesy Michael Watson campaign.

When Republican Michael Watson leaves the State Senate to become Mississippi’s new secretary of state next month, he will have the opportunity to make good on his recent support for ending a Jim Crow law that was designed to weaken black voting strength. In Mississippi, candidates for the eight statewide offices (including governor, attorney general, and secretary of state) can win a majority of the vote, but still lose an election if they do not win a majority among Mississippi House districts.

“I’m definitely supportive of moving away from the current system. … We’re the only ones that do it (like this), and that’s got to change,” Watson told the Clarion-Ledger after he won his election in November.

While Watson cannot unilaterally change the State’s electoral-college-like system, he can use the power of his new office, where he will oversee State election processes, to petition the Legislature to do so.

Earlier this year, four black Mississippi voters, backed by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, filed a lawsuit describing the 129-year-old scheme to dilute black voting power. A federal judge halted the lawsuit from going forward at least until after the elections, saying he had grave concerns about the system, but that maybe the Legislature should be given a chance to remedy it.

To do so, legislators will have to amend Mississippi constitution. One of its framers, then-Mississippi House Rep. James K. Vardaman, was explicit about the 1890 constitution’s purpose at the time of its adoption.

“There is no use to equivocate or lie about the matter. Mississippi’s constitutional convention was held for no other purpose than to eliminate the nigger from politics; not the ignorant—but the nigger,” admitted Vardaman, who later became governor and then a U.S. senator.

In addition to poll taxes and literacy tests, which the Voting Rights Act of 1965 nullified, the new state constitution included the scheme currently at issue, which is similar to the national Electoral College system that has denied the presidency to two Democratic popular vote winners since 2000—Al Gore and Hillary Clinton.

The law became an issue during the 2019 statewide elections, which Democrat Jim Hood came within five points of winning. Democrats had worried Hood could have won a majority of the vote, but not enough House Districts to win the governorship.

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